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The Dilemma of Today's "Progressives"

State Senator John Marty, an intelligent and decent man, is one of the more attractive figures in Minnesota politics. He was the DFL candidate for Governor in 1994 and is again making a bid for this office in 2010. Marty's current cause is universal health care. His letter published in the March 31, 2010 issue of NorthNews, a Minneapolis community newspaper, urges political progressives to have the courage of their convictions and support programs that may be politically difficult. I have another perspective on this question. Marty's letter and mine are shown successively.


John Marty

Another candidate’s views on today’s progressives

If 21st Century Progressives led the 19th Century Abolition Movement, we’d still have slavery, but we’d have limited it to 40 hour work weeks, and we’d be so proud of the progress we’d made.

In earlier eras of U.S. history, progressives believed they could fight injustice and move society forward, and they did so. Today, however, many progressives have lost faith in their ability to affect significant change. Many are content simply to tinker with problems, whether the issue is getting living wages for work, ending poverty, or removing toxins from our food supply

For example, consider universal health care. All progressives claim to support this, but many aren’t willing to fight for it, some dismiss it as legislation that can’t happen for decades. They talk about universal health care but offer and support proposals that are mere band-aids.

It is instructive to look back to the past. Despite the reality that men were the only ones who held office and the only ones who could vote, suffragettes fought and won the seemingly impossible goal of gaining the right to vote. In the 1960s civil-rights activists believed they could get rid of segregation laws and get equal rights under the law. When told they were expecting change to occur too rapidly, Martin Luther King wrote a book explaining, ‘Why We Can’t Wait.’

Today, however, regardless of the speed of other changes in society, many progressives have lost hope. for them, such a book would now be titled ‘Why We Need to be Pragmatic and Accept Token Change.’

This timidity can be explained by decades of defeat at the hands of right wing politicians like Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, which caused many progressives to retreat from a ‘Politics of Principle’ to a supposed ‘Politics of Pragmatism’ that is not only lacking in courage, but also has been highly ineffective. Under the politics of principle, the progressive movement would fight for the goal, using pragmatic politis only to figure out how to promote the message.

But with the current politics of misguided pragmatism, some progressive calculate what is politically acceptable, and then determine what they will stand for. For example, using this ’pragmatism’, President Obama decided to push for health insurance for more instead of health care for all.

One cannot totally fault the President for failing to push for comprehensive reform. He shied away from principle-based reform because he knows that members of Congress take big campaign contributions from the health insurance lobby and other powerful interests. He knows that they are afraid of nasty campaign attacks and believe they need the big money to win reelection.

‘Pragmatically,’ Democrats to Washington are pushing for ‘universal’ health care that isn’t universal. They are pushing for reforms that cost more, not less, and policies that focus more on their sense of pragmatism than on real public health and prevention.

It’s time for progressives to have the courage of our convictions. If we claim to believe in universal health care, we need to fight for it. The MN Health Plan - which covers everyone for all their medial needs, and costs less than we are spending now - is on the table. Those who are not willing to take on the powerful insurance lobby, ought to be honest and admit that reelection and other priorities matter more.

Refusing to fight for it because it is ‘not politically realistic’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, dismissing it as something that will take decades to pass means leaving the problem to the next generation.

Whether the issue is living wages for workers, environmental protection, or LGBT equality, many progressives have lost courage. They fight to raise the minimum wage by fifty cents for every dollar that inflation takes away. Even in victory, we accomplish little. It is time to move beyond fear and stand up for the principles we say we believe in. Minnesotans deserve nothing less.

John Marty, State Senator Roseville.



William McGaughey

Why "Progressives" can't say what they think

John Marty’s letter, “another candidate’s views on today’s progressives”, asks the right question but does not provide a complete set of answers. Essentially, Marty is saying that “progressives” should have the courage of their convictions. They should be willing to take on important issues like health care and fight forthrightly for programs reflecting their values. So far, so good.

However, this argument overlooks the base of "progressive" - DFL - support. One pillar of support is organized labor. Another is the Civil Rights coalition - not only African Americans, but also feminist women, gays and lesbians, and immigrants - that is comprised of self-styled minority or victimized groups.

If DFL victories require keeping the African American voting bloc within the 80% to 90% range, the party’s candidates face the problem of being unable to state their policies openly without antagonizing the larger group of white voters. A logical program to help black people might be to advocate racial preferences in hiring - i.e., affirmative action - but such a program, if too explicit, would alienate whites. Therefore, DFL candidates cannot be open and honest in declaring their aims.

The preferred strategy is to give black voters a private wink and hope that white voters will not notice. The best way to “wink” is through code words. The DFL therefore becomes a bastion of politically correct speech. Its program of action consists of demonizing individuals in the other parties. Someone who deviates from the preferred view on race is labelled a “bigot”. It’s doubtful that this practice helps black people much but it does keep them politically in line to have disrespectful whites attacked this way.

The same dynamic applies to the other groups in the Civil Rights coalition. With the possible exception of immigrants, for whom the issue of amnesty is a substantive one, the DFL position is about appearing to be friendly toward these groups without doing all that much. The problem is that the Constitution generally requires the government to treat people equally under the law, so that substantive measures favoring one birth-determined group over another are hard to justify. But demographic differences are what the DFL is about.

With respect to labor, the problem is that labor unions have ceased to represent working people in general but, instead, its members have become a relatively privileged group among the working class. If the DFL candidates supported large wage increases for union members, it would antagonize the much larger group of working people who do not belong to unions and are likely earning less. A further problem is that union membership is now concentrated among public employees. Voters see a potential conflict of interest between government officials who receive political support from public-employee unions but who represent “management” in contracts with the same unions.

The bottom line is that the DFL candidates cannot openly advocate programs appealing to their various constituencies. They must be careful in what they say. Until those people in the Civil Rights coalition outnumber the “majority” population, they must have one eye cocked at those in the larger group who might be antagonized in order to win elections.

The Republicans, being the party of the rich, have the problem that the rich are vastly outnumbered by persons of lesser income and wealth. They can counter this, to some degree, by arguments about economic merit and the free-enterprise system. The rich got that way through hard work, the argument goes; and maybe we ourselves, being meritorious and hard-working, will be rich some day. Economic and religious dogma at least allow the Republicans to state their arguments openly and to defend their positions when attacked.

Right now, the Republicans have some wild and crazy women such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann representing them in the media. The Democrats’ demonizing machine swings into high gear to try to marginalize or discredit them; but these are irrepressible energizer bunnies who keep on talking through thick and thin. These smiling right-wing women do not worry about criticisms in the media or elsewhere but say what they think.

When you’re free to say what you think, you have a certain advantage. And that, in my opinion, is why “progressives” - they used to be “liberals” - have had such a hard time lately.